It’s that Time of the Year Again…
Summer is coming to an end, and the academic year has begun. Long, relaxing days spent lounging by the pool are replaced with busy school days sitting at a desk. Students find their way to new classrooms through a sea of people, many of them strangers. For many, beginning school can be an exciting time of the year. However, it can also provoke unwanted anxiety.
Anxiety Is Not Always a Bad Thing
Anxiety can be an adaptive quality. Feelings of anxiety occur in order to alert us of possible danger. Therefore, it makes sense when we experience it in unfamiliar situations, such as the first day of school. Small amounts of anxiety can even improve a student’s performance. For example, imagine a student who has absolutely no anxiety about his academic achievements. Would this student complete the assigned readings, take necessary time to study, or even turn in assignments? Most likely not, resulting in a low grade for the class. With that said, a small amount of anxiety can be facilitating, and help people maintain their responsibilities.
In contrast, a great deal of anxiety will likely interfere with school performance. Excessive anxiety is distracting, resulting in the loss of attention to the task at hand. High levels of anxiety interfere with many cognitive processes that are critical for students to reach their maximum potential in the classroom.
Excessive Anxiety Leads to Problems in Executive Functioning
The cognitive processes mentioned previously can be grouped under the term executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to the cognitive abilities we have in order to control and regulate our behaviors. Executive functions are necessary for planning, organizing, prioritizing, and decision-making in order to accomplish goal-directed behaviors, as well as monitor and change our behaviors. Individuals with high levels of anxiety typically have difficulties in one or more areas of executive functioning. Specifically, those with anxiety may have trouble with working memory, attention, initiation, and cognitive shifting. Trouble in these areas clearly leads to difficulty in classroom performance.
What Triggers Anxiety at School?
Students sometimes develop anxiety due to particular stimuli, which are reinforced through conditioning. Triggers for anxiety at school include: demanding subject matter, tests and exams, and situations where the individual feels threatened. In addition, transition phases commonly induce anxiety. For example, transitioning to a new school, or moving from middle school to high school. A common type of anxiety in school occurs in social situations, known as Social or Performance Phobia. This phobia is related to perceived judgments, negative evaluations, or criticisms from others, and excessive concerns with self-image. All of these situations can be intensely difficult and trigger repeated anxiety that is reinforced over time.
Strategies to Reduce Classroom Anxiety
It may be difficult for students, especially younger children, to have the ability to verbalize what they are feeling when they experience anxiety. Below are some strategies that parents, teachers, and school personnel can use in order to address the student’s distress.
- Validate the student’s feelings, and understand that his/her worries are real.
- Model and teach appropriate reactions to stress.
- Teach relaxation techniques (e.g., deep diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation).
- Mindfulness training can help a child learn to focus on the present moment, rather than ruminating on past or future worries.
- Determine the source of the student’s anxiety. If the anxiety is due to a specific identifiable event, object, or person, then modify the student’s environment accordingly.
- Reduce unnecessary stress within the classroom environment (i.e., clutter, lack of structure, seating arrangements, etc.).
- Identify an individual the student may talk to in order to provide support during the school day (i.e., school counselor, school nurse, classroom aide, etc.).
- Minimize the emphasis on classmate competition, and accentuate to all students that they cannot be perfect in everything.
- Allow the student sufficient time to complete his/her assignments.
- If the student’s anxiety increases in response to timed tests, then limit the use of timed tests as much as possible.
- Interact with the student frequently to facilitate attentive behavior and provide positive feedback.
- If social anxiety exists, pair the student with a “classroom buddy” who can gently guide the student in appropriate social encounters with peers.
- Do not “force” the student to participate in social activities, which will only increase the anxiety to social situations.
- Allow the student to engage in calming activities when feeling especially anxious, such as silent reading or using a stress ball.
- Communication and collaboration between school personnel and parents is key to determine a plan to reduce the child’s anxiety.
- If the student exhibits tics, obsessions and/or compulsions, or any other serious neurological or psychiatric disorder, consult with the appropriate school staff to determine if the student is eligible for special education or Section 504 services.